“We are not the makers of History. We are made by it.”
– Martin Luther King
Where do you come from? At a time when even postcodes can spill blood, the question of identity is a loaded one. Yet while some steps have been taken to recover some of our long distorted history, many of our social histories still remain overlooked.
Let’s face it. If black history is a slim volume slid to the back of the shelf, then black LGBT history is barely a side note. Therefore to celebrate Black History Month, we decided to highlight three influential and lesser-known periods in Black LGBT history.
Boy Wives in Zimbabwe, Africa (8000 BCE – 1900)
Homosexuality is found amongst many of the worlds earliest civilisations with Africa being no exception.
In fact cave drawings found in Sub Saharan Africa show some of the earliest known depictions of gay sexuality. The San, a race stone-age hunter gatherers, left a range of cave drawings throughout Zimbabwe dating as far back as 8000 BC. The most famous of these paintings shows a gay couple face to face, while another shows three male figures intertwined, with one figure guiding an erect penis into the other.
Not surprising then that during the 1500’s European explorers such as Andrew Battell remarked that many tribes across the Congo showed a range of “gender fluid” identities, with male to male sex common enough not to be taboo. Among the Pangwe people of present-day Cameroon, homosexuality was practised between men of all ages as away to “transmit wealth.” Meanwhile, as Will Roscue writes in Boy-wives and Female Husbands, Sudan’s Zande tribe had a long tradition of warriors “marrying young boys” (and paying a dowry), with even prominent kings such as Uganda’s King Mwanga II openly taking male lovers.
Perhaps its worth noting that many of the laws that later criminalised homosexuality in these African countries were imposed under the British empire. This effort to “civilise” and convert Africans to Christianity has since left a bloody legacy that Teresa May publicly apologised for earlier this year.
The Harlem Renaissance 1920’s
The Harlem Renaissance was a black intellectual and artistic explosion that occurred in New York during the 1920s. This period marked the first time that White America acknowledged the artistic contributions of African Americans, as after the civil war many African Americans moved from the rural south to the north, where they began to radically redefine the black identity outside of slavery. This period planted the seed for the civil rights movement, redefined Jazz and produced some of the 21st centuries most seminal works. It was also gay, very gay.
The movement itself was led by many black gay men and women. As such the list of LGBT pioneers during this time are endless, amongst them literary giants James Baldwin, Langston Hughes, Claude McKay and Alain Locke as well as blues singers Ma Rainey, Besse Smith and Josephine Baker to name a few.
Black publications at the time were candid about the Harlem’s sexually ambivalent night life. It was here that Gladys Bently, dressed in a cream coloured tuxedo, famously sang, “nothing perplexes like the sexes, because when you see them switch you can’t tell which is which.” Meanwhile today pictures of the famous Ubangi club can be seen showing black saxophone players intimately entwined while others reveal cross dressing women and men. This period not only greased the wheels for the civil rights but also saw the early beginnings of something akin to a LGBT community amongst African Americans.
Paris is Burning: the birth of “shade”
Sometimes seen as “the golden age” the 1980’s is arguably one of the most colourful and influential periods of black LGBT culture.
Characterised by New Yorks underground drag ball scene (tongue in cheek pageants where men and women won by “walking” runway model style) this period was also the birth place of vouging and outspoken figures such as Willi ninja and Dorian Corey.
The notorious drag balls emerged partly as a reaction to the privileges denied to gay black men by white society, with many of the competitions mimicking exaggerated versions of the rich white classes with categories such as “business executive,” “Harvard graduate” and “prom queen.”
Through these competitions black gay men were given a sense of status and self worth, developing a reputation for “fierce” and uncompromising self-expression.
Where do you think the phrases “yas queen” and “throwing shade” come from?
Brought to mainstream consciousness by Jennie Livingstone’s “Paris is Burning,” the documentary also highlights how these figures redefined notions of family amongst themselves, in lieu of the rejection they experienced from their own during the aids crisis.
Black LGBT history remains a section of history that is largely misrepresented, minimised or bypassed altogether. There are a distinct lack of early first hand accounts of black LGBT history, largely because historically black communities haven’t always been allowed a voice. This article offers only a snapshot of the rich tapestry that makes up this category and the brave people that have paved the way for the sexual freedoms we enjoy today. Its crucial that we as LGBT people of colour not only look for these stories but add to them also. Now more then ever it is crucial that we record our experiences and tell our stories, otherwise who else will?